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Got Game? High Holidays 5773

Rabbi HoffmanYou’ve seen it happen before. It is a new social cue that has entered our non-verbal vocabulary. It makes its way into office spaces and board meetings, at mealtimes, and even while waiting for the traffic signal to turn. Let’s call it, “The Drop.” “The Drop” comes at some point mid conversation, or perhaps when waiting for your turn in a three minute line, or when the work at hand is too challenging to tackle and we need a little distraction.           

You may receive the cue when your companion is practicing, “The Drop” himself.   I first witnessed “The Drop” when a dear friend took out his new iPhone and suddenly drifted into virtual space while we waited for our lunch. I thought to myself, ‘What should I do now? Look at my phone? Stare at the salt shaker?’ I sat and watched him like a voyeur into someone’s fantasy world. Fingers rapping feverishly upon a highly-tempered glass screen. Eyes widening with excitement. Marvelous and sad at the same time.

Pay attention to “The Drop.” There are definitive moments when someone reaches for the phone or begins plucking away at the keyboard. In meetings, it happens when the subject requires more than, let’s say 140 characters to discuss.   It happens at stoplights, which are an average of thirty seconds to one minute waiting time. Among the most egregious “Droppers,” it usually manifests when the conversation stops being about him or her and she has spoken her part. Some may call all this multi-tasking. Others may perceive it as rude.  

What is it that draws our attention away from being present with others, even the ones we love? What is it that beckons us to turn away even when operating a heavy piece of machinery? What is it when we have the chance to be alone with our thoughts and we anxiously reach for some technical device to soothe our agitation?    

It will only be a matter of years, maybe decades before we can literally no longer function in this world without devices like a mobile phone or technology like broadband internet. If you haven’t felt it lately, we have reached a new threshold to being “Always on.” This is the message Rabbi Nahman of Brastlav once wove into a tale too close to ignore:

A king once called forward his prime minister, who was also his good friend: "I see in the stars that everyone who eats from this year's grain harvest is going to go mad. What do you think we should do?"

The prime minister suggested they should put aside a stock of good grain so they would not have to eat from the tainted grain.

"But it will be impossible to set aside enough good grain for everyone," the king objected. "And if we put away a stock for just the two of us, we will be the only ones who will be sane. Everyone else will be mad, and they will look at us and think that we are the mad ones.

"No. We too will have to eat from this year's grain. But we will both put a sign on our heads. I will look at your forehead, and you will look at mine. And when we see the sign, at least we will remember that we are mad."

There is a madness descending upon us, and you and I, my friends, are in sacred counsel. But I do not think the devices are the source of our problems. The madness is far more insidious.   It is the unprecedented experience that in the words of M.I.T. professor on science and technology, Sherry Turkle, suggests “being alone feels like a problem to be solved.” We have voluntarily infantilized ourselves with digital pacifiers that allow us to suckle the comfort of connection when the fear of neglect or irrelevance sinks upon us.

The symptom of this madness takes form in a constant barrage of information we’re forced to assimilate daily, some necessary for our survival, most out of an irrational fear that we might not survive without it. It is an internal battle we confront between our quest for relevance and our need for distraction. This quest for relevance is manifest in our workplace, family life, and communal life. We see it especially in our online fascination with the daily lives of others and the need to share details of our own lives so freely and publicly.  

Others see this clamor for relevance from a completely different point of view. People don’t escape into the virtual world because they’re lonely. No. This distraction is a tool to help us escape from reality. For example, online gaming is a multi-billion dollar global industry, and some 500 million people identify themselves as active gamers, 180 million of those in the U.S. alone. It’s everything from Words with Friends, to online chess; from World of Warcraft and Halo, to Super Mario Brothers Olympic Games 2012.   The most popular of all these games allow us to experience success in achieving goals, and working collaboratively to solve problems with fellow players. This gamification of life is penetrating the workplace, the home, schools and even the community.

Consider another tale of a king in crisis. Thousands of years ago, the Lydian people suffered through a famine that would last more than 18 years. Over the course of those grueling years, the king of Lydia proposed that people play games of dice to stave off the hunger. By alternating days of eating and days of playing games, the king was able to sustain his people for many years. And when the famine did not subside, the Lydian king invented a new game – send half the people off to explore and settle a new land. Yes, the kingdom was diminished, but that courageous journey would lead the Lydians to settle and become the Etruscan people, the ultimate forebears of the Roman Empire.

Two kings confront the untenable circumstances of famine who resorted to games to save their worlds. One king saved his people by ordering them to play games of dice. The other a game of chance, that perhaps the mark on their foreheads would remind them of a pristine past.

And now this is our choice to make. Are we to eat from the tainted sheaves of the past and escape into a virtual world of solace - a world where we can play again when we fail? Or shall we take hold of the greatest challenges of our time in history and harness the most powerful sources of creativity and commitment in existence? Our truth is that we are making this choice in small ways every single day and we don’t even know it.

For, where do the games end and real life begin? Where do we slip into the trappings of a gaming reality, where everything we see is a game to win? Our workplace is a game, where clever and patient strategy creates opportunities to ‘level-up,’ or to gain promotions. Our educational environments are rampant with competitive messages. Study hard, achieve the highest test scores and you will succeed. Winning the game is acceptance into the right college, (or is it the right graduate school or is it the right job where you have to play the right game to receive the largest bonus?) Our political environment is a laden with images of races, and victories for the best seat, like a game of musical chairs. Shall we peer into our homes, where the kitchen tables can become the most cunning examples of manipulation and strategy, to gain the upper hand? Just like art is a reflection of life, the games we play are a reflection of the reality we create as well. And these games don’t seem very fun.

“That which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered,” so says Ecclesiastes.   It is a crooked world we’ve created. Our children are natives in a digital existence and there is no amount of nostalgia that can bolster us against the tidal waves of our new realities.

You can hear the voice of the pessimist. “Give Up! You’ll Live Longer” It’s the slogan adorning the wall in the office of Dr. Jove, the fictional psychiatrist in Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy: A Novel. His fiction is far too real. Auslander’s Jove gives us pause to consider that, “The greatest source of misery in the world, the greatest cause of anguish and hatred and sadness and death, was neither disease nor race nor religion. It was hope.” ( Hope: A Tragedy: A Novel p.31)

So, “Give up! - You’ll live longer” - The grain is tainted - let’s eat it and hope we’re not mad. Dr. Jove’s voice cannot be ignored. It’s our choice to make.

The artful message of hope is communicated overtly everywhere. Drive up and down Ventura Boulevard. We’re being sold hope on billboards for better bodies, smarter schools, products that we hope will help us become more productive, more well-liked...happy.

Why do we even need hope to be sold to us? Has hope really been the source of discovery in new medical treatments?   Has hope helped solve a financial crisis or advanced the conversations toward stability in Israel? No. It’s never hope that makes a change. It is something far more powerful than hope - it’s determination. Hope is passive, determination is active. Dr. Jove is a lot smarter than we care to admit.

And still, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once observed, "Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness." You see, there is another path - it’s neither hope nor surrender - it’s about willpower. The time to train our will is, as always, right now. How will you choose to act?

Just consider, Jews have been constructing virtual realities to sustain us for centuries. The most famous is the Pesah Seder. Year after year, we read one line that justifies the entire celebration. The central text of the Seder:

בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים 

“In each generation we are obligated to see ourselves as if we were redeemed from slavery in Egypt.” K’Eilu - As if! Here, it is a great game called Redemption, and it is the quintessential narrative of our people!

This game, “K’Eilu” is in our ethic.

שלשה שאכלו על שולחן אחד ואמרו עליו דברי תורה. כאלו אכלו משולחנו של מקום ברוך הוא. 

“If three people eat together and share words of Torah, words of wisdom, it is “K’Eilu” “As If” they had eaten at God’s Table.” (Avot 3:3) This is a game called Sacred Wisdom. Share it with others and you win big!

לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי, ללמדך שכל המאבד נפש אחת מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא, וכל המקיים נפש אחת מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא.

“One human being was created in the beginning to teach us that if one murders a single person, It’s “K’Eilu” “As-if” you have destroyed the entire world.” (Sanhedrin 37a) That’s a game called, Conscience, and we play it here all the time.

Each time we see the word K’Eilu we choose to act as if the world around us can be the world we dream it to be.

Those who are thinking seriously about games that empower are dreaming of a world where we spend an hour a day playing, and not just any games. Epic games - Multi-Member Online Role Playing Games. Learning to solve problems together, setting our own personal goals and experiencing the same satisfying responses to completing a level or solving a problem. In a game called World Without Oil, you live in a world that no longer has fossil fuel resources to power our lives. or a game called Foldit, you discover ways to untangle proteins that cause cancer, enabling real researchers to take your findings and create cures. These games already exist and using them to address and solve real-world issues is now more possible than ever.

Playing games takes on a new meaning - it’s the opposite of distraction. It’s what Heschel meant when he wrote, “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.” Living in the K’Eilu - acting as if we have real world solutions to the problems we face is even stronger than hope - it’s empowering.

Even the pessimistic Kohelet returns from his futility and suggests, “The end of the matter, all having been heard: revere God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.” (Kohelet, 12:13) There is a purpose for everything under the sun, and we are bound to discover it.

Determination is why Shalom Auslander can’t let Dr. Jove have the last word. It’s the voice of his character, the evolutionary biologist Pinkus, who restores some balance to the argument:

It would seem absurd to suggest [we are getting better], no? It would seem insane to suggest such a thing in the face of Rwanda, in the face of Darfur, of Cambodia...but those are the facts, you see? Those are the numbers; it is something we can measure...a knowable thing...The numbers tell the real story, no? We are getting better. We are more caring, more giving, more moral. We are less violent, less callous, less hateful...Nobody wants to hear that answer, which is fascinating in its own right, but we don’t have more killing now than then, that is the fact -- we simply have more reporting.” (p. 203)

Yes. We are still a hopeful people - we look for tomorrow as better; that there is an end to our slavery, that redemption can and will come. But to only look until tomorrow is to procrastinate - to put off until tomorrow to satisfy an easier need. Don’t mistake hope for a choice.

Leave the virtual world of online games and return to something more pedestrian. Pro-football coach, Tony Dungy has an unconventional coaching philosophy. His motto is, “Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They just follow the habits they’ve learned.”   He was the coach that turned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from the worst team in the league into Super Bowl contenders three years in a row in less three seasons, all based on some simple habits his players would execute over and over and over again. But every time they would get close to the big win, they would fall apart. The simple techniques he trained them to execute without thought, were taken over by the concerns for championships and success. Put simply, his team were champions, they just didn’t believe the habits they learned would work. Dungy lost his job after the third blown championship. But it didn’t matter, because his reputation and techniques had become the standard training for the entire professional league. He was immediately picked up by the Indianapolis Colts desperate for a Super-Bowl Championship.

In the first season with the Colts he led them to the playoffs with the best record in the league. But then a tragedy rocked Dungy’s family, when his son died and the team couldn’t pull through in the playoffs. Something changed. Not in Dungy’s technique, nor in the player’s physical talent. The team gave into Dungy’s unorthodox simplicity. This time they believed it would work, but not because they had faith in the habit or even faith in the coach alone, but because they became part of something greater than themselves. Dungy’s child died, not the team’s. But, it was their empathy that enabled them to believe that they had the ability to become champions.

“Belief is the ingredient that makes a habit become a permanent behavior.” (Duhigg, p.92) Whether it’s the desire to stop that afternoon snacking, excessive coffee use, biting nails, barking at loved ones, or playing too many mindless video games(!) old and well developed habits can be changed by changing your routine, if you believe.

And if you love football, you’ll remember that Championship game where the rivaling New England Patriots were poised to defeat the Colts for the third time. Only this time, Coach Dungy had these four words to say in the locker room, “You have to believe.” Trailing 21-3 at the half-time, the Colts rallied and won 38-34.  

If it can happen on the football field, it can happen to us too. You have to believe.

If it can happen in with Epic games, it can happen to us too. You have to believe.

If it can happen here – mitzvot, tefillah, acts of chesed, if can happen to us too. You have to believe

Change your routine - K’Eilu - as if what you do really matters. Be distracted - to see that the way you’ve always lived your life isn’t the way it always has to be.

It is Yom Kippur – we give ourselves this time to examine our habits. We offer our prayers to God that we do have the power and determination to better ourselves, our community, our society, our world. It’s an epic belief that we can and will change the world around us for the better. And I say, Game On.

L’Shana Tovah/G’mar Chatimah Tovah

Tue, July 7 2020 15 Tammuz 5780